Indian gaming pioneer, John Philip Nichols, dies at 76

The Desert Sun
March 20th, 2001

John Philip Nichols, the man credited with bringing prosperity and infamy to the Cabazon Band of Mission Indians, died Saturday at John F. Kennedy Hospital in Indio.

The cause of death was unavailable, but members of Nichols’ family have said he has been ill for years.

Services will be Thursday at 10 a.m. at Our Lady of Solitude Church in Palm Springs.

Nichols, 76, was known to some as an Indian gaming pioneer and to others as the mastermind of a murder-for-hire plot foiled by police in 1985.

Between his arrival on the Cabazon Reservation as a financial savior in 1978 and his departure to prison seven years later, Nichols laid the groundwork for a business enterprise that reaps tens of millions of dollars annually.

He was convicted in 1985 after pleading no contest to two counts of murder solicitation and served 18 months in prison.

Nichols’ son, Mark Nichols, is now chief executive officer for the Cabazon Band.

A rйsumй of Nichols described him as “an economist, international social worker and resource developer.”

Born in Racine, Wis., in 1924, Nichols traveled the globe from South America to Saudi Arabia working as a consultant for private companies, nonprofit organizations and governments.

In his later years, Nichols researched environmentally friendly waste-to-energy methods and developed affordable, highly durable concrete and adobe manufactured housing, according to obituary information provided to The Desert Sun.

Family members were unavailable Monday evening, and a Cabazon employee said the tribe has not released a statement.

Pioneer: Nichols guided the tribe as it made history by opening one of the country’s first American Indian casinos in 1980.

Police raided the Desert Oasis Casino poker parlor just days after it opened, but the concept survived.

In 1987, two years after Nichols was jailed, the United States Supreme Court solidified the legality of Indian casinos when it ruled on California v. Cabazon Band of Mission Indians.

The decision and resulting legislation still govern Indian gaming today.

“He was one of the pioneers of Indian gaming,” said Michael Lombardi, a former casino manager and consultant to a number of California tribes. “He was a tremendous character.”

But Nichols also served the tribe during its darkest days.

Tough times: In July 1981, former tribal official Fred Alvarez and two friends were shot in the head and killed in Rancho Mirage the day Alvarez was to meet with an attorney supposedly to reveal “ ‘mismanagement of Cabazon monies’ by the tribe’s non-Indian administrators,” according to newspaper accounts.

Police never linked anyone associated with the Cabazon Band to the killings. The murders remain unsolved.

Former tribal chairman Arthur Welmas, whose term coincided with Nichols’ arrival, supported Nichols through good and bad times.

“If it weren’t for him, we wouldn’t be where we are today,” Welmas told The Desert Sun shortly after Nichols’ conviction on the murder solicitation charges that were unrelated to the Alvarez case. “He was caught in a sting operation. That’s the way I see it.”

The tribe’s saga was reported on frequently from the early 1980s through the mid-1990s in the media including reports by The Desert Sun, Los Angeles Times, Spy Magazine, and San Francisco Chronicle, among others.

Lombardi said despite its pioneering role in Indian gaming, the notoriety of tribal officials damaged the Cabazon legacy.

“His conviction ... made him a marked man,” Lombardi said of Nichols. “He just had a propensity of getting himself into trouble.”


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Inland Empire Online March 21, 2001 Wednesday.

Cabazon casino founder, 76, dies
"He changed a lot of people's lives and he lived a lot of people's fantasies," his son said.

By Mark Henry and Mike Kataoka
The Press-Enterprise

John Philip Nichols, patriarch of a family that brought the Cabazon Indians into the gambling era, has died after years of poor health.

The 76-year-old La Quinta resident suffered a heart attack at home Saturday and was pronounced dead at John F. Kennedy Memorial Hospital in Indio.

Mr. Nichols remained an enigmatic figure, his life scrutinized by law enforcement, writers and conspiracy theorists.

"No matter what anybody says about my dad, one thing he had that a lot of people don't have is courage," said his son, Mark Nichols, CEO of the tribe, which operates a casino and other ventures near Indio.

"He changed a lot of people's lives and he lived a lot of people's fantasies."

Supporters had credited Mr. Nichols, a non-Indian, with bringing economic growth to the Cabazon Indian Reservation near Indio.

After Mr. Nichols became its financial adviser in 1978, the tribe launched business ventures including the sale of tax-free cigarettes, discount liquor and a poker club and bingo hall. Under Mr. Nichols, the Cabazons established health-insurance plans and opportunities in education and employment.

And in 1987, the tribe joined the Morongo Indians near Banning in a legal fight resulting in a landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling that supported rights to conduct gaming operations.

Born in 1924, Mr. Nichols was active at an early age as a student and labor organizer in Wisconsin. He went to South America in 1959 and for the next decade helped Indians in Bolivia and Peru become self-sufficient.

Mr. Nichols' involvement with the Cabazons drew much attention outside the reservation.

In 1981, the tribe entered a joint venture with a company to explore the manufacture of armaments on Cabazon land. The venture courted potential clients for right-wing forces, including Nicaraguan Contra rebels. A Cabazon official involved in the venture later accused Mr. Nichols of being involved in covert military operations. The venture ended two years later.

In 1985, Mr. Nichols pleaded no contest to two felony counts of soliciting the murder of two people he believed were dealing drugs. The killings were never carried out. He spent almost two years in prison.

Also that year, state law-enforcement authorities confirmed he was a suspect in the killing of Cabazon member Fred Alvarez. He and two friends were found shot to death outside a Rancho Mirage home in 1981. Alvarez reportedly had evidence that funds were being mismanaged at the tribal poker club and planned to reveal the information.

The tribe denied any involvement and termed any connection between the tribe and business ventures "ridiculous and malicious." The triple killings remain unsolved 20 years later.

Mr. Nichols' involvement with the tribe has been the subject of books, articles and television programs. They have speculated that Mr. Nichols had connections with high government officials, including the Reagan administration and the CIA.

Mark Nichols said now is not the time to comment on every inquiry and probe into his father's life.

While Mr. Nichols was in prison, his son John Paul Nichols, now of New York City, took over as principal business adviser. Mark Nichols later became CEO.

Mr. Nichols also is survived by a third son, Robert of Yucca Valley. A funeral Mass will be celebrated at 10 a.m. Thursday at Our Lady of Solitude Catholic Church in Palm Springs. Burial will follow at Desert Memorial Park in Cathedral City.